How To Get Into a Top Law School With a Low GPA

Back when I was applying to law school, I never imagined I could have gotten into a top law school with a C+ average. The truth is that there are no minimum GPA requirements for law school. However, you have to put together a strong application to maximize your chances of getting in. That’s what this blog post is all about.

Not only was I able to get into law school, I got into one of the top 14 law schools in the country.  Today I am a graduate of Northwestern Law, which is ranked among the top 14 law schools in the country. My career prospects were greatly enhanced by attending a top law school. After graduation I worked at a corporate law job that paid me an obscene salary of $160,000 per year–which would have been impossible if I hadn’t attended a top law school.

NU-Law

I decided to write this post because I wanted to let you know that you can get into a top law school with a low GPA.

How do you get into law school with a low GPA?
  1. Get a high LSAT score.
  2. Spin your grades (by identifying an upward trend or a sharp jump in GPA) in an addendum to your application.
  3. Apply to lots and lots of law schools, especially splitter-friendly ones.
  4. Write a strong personal statement and write all optional essays. Avoid hackneyed and overused topics.
  5. Include solid recommendations that counteract your academic weaknesses.
  6. If waitlisted, send letters of continued interest. Remain on the waitlist for as long as you can.

Now, it’s not necessarily a sure thing–most people with low GPAs don’t end up at top law schools, even if they have a superhigh LSAT.  But it’s possible as long as you do well on the LSAT, construct a strong application, and select splitter friendly schools (more on that later).  My knowledge and experience comes from my personal experience with the entire admissions process, my work as a volunteer admissions interviewer at Northwestern, and talking to countless classmates who also had low college GPAs.

Bonus: Sign up for your free copy of 30 Tips for Law School Applicants with Bad College Grades.

MY STORY

After I decided I wanted to become a lawyer, I did some Internet research to see if I had a chance at getting into a top law school despite having bad grades. I soon learned that the top law schools care more about the LSAT than your grades. A lot more. It dawned upon me that I could get in if I became a low GPA high LSAT applicant.  I needed to absolutely dominate the LSAT.

My first step was to maximize my GPA. I started taking academics seriously in the last two semesters of college and raised my GPA from a 2.6 to a 2.9.  Next, I spent countless hours poring over applicant records at the relatively new database of law school application results called Law School Numbers. I figured that I’d have a 50-50 shot if I could break a 170 on the LSAT.

The first time I took the LSAT I scored in the 150s.  After spending thousands of dollars and innumerable hours slaving away practicing the LSAT, I was able to score a 170. With a 2.9 GPA and 170 LSAT, I learned (again, from Internet research) that I was a Splitter, or someone who has both (1) a low undergraduate GPA and (2) a high LSAT. Based on my numbers, and based on the information I had so far, I was still a long shot to get into a top law school.  In fact, the data said I had only a 33% chance of getting into Northwestern Law, the most splitter-friendly top law school.

Still, I was determined to get in. I obsessively researched the admissions process and tried to do everything I could possibly do to maximize my chances. I created a Law School Numbers account to track my progress.

This article summarizes everything I learned.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

There are two main principles I tried to follow during the process.

Try Everything: There’s really not much concrete evidence on what does or doesn’t work. All of the advice you receive will be backed up by anecdotal data. That’s just how it is. So I would recommend that you try everything you can–even if you think it probably won’t work. As long as something can’t hurt you, you should try it because who knows–maybe you’ll get lucky. For example, I knew it was unlikely that speaking with admissions officers at law school fairs would help my application. But I did it anyways, because who knows–maybe I would hit it off with someone there and get a leg up on my application. I did other things that had virtually zero chance of working, but I was surprised by how much it set me apart in the process–probably because no one else was crazy enough to try them too. My favorite example is when I secured an in-person interview with the director of admissions at a top law school that does not interview candidates.  I was able to pull this off because of something he said in a law school admissions book. 

Related: Law School Admissions Officers Reveal How They Evaluate Candidates.

Don’t Rush the Process: There are lots of reasons for a splitter to wait before applying to law school. First, the farther you can distance yourself from college, the more you can convincingly say that you’re no longer a bad student. Second, you’ll have more time to practice the LSAT to death, which will do wonders for your application results. Third, you can save up more money so that you have fewer loans when you graduate. And fourth, some schools (like Northwestern) like for their students to have some work experience. Personally, I decided to go to law school when I was still in college, yet I decided to wait two years before applying.  At the time it was agonizing to see my friends apply and get into law school while I was still working on the LSAT.  In retrospect it was the best decision I could have made.

LSAT

There are thousands of words in this post and none of them matter as much as these six: Get the highest LSAT score possible. Even one or two points can make all the difference in this game. Consider taking a LSAT prep course.

Related: Should You Take a LSAT Course? Five Questions to Ask Yourself First

Practice LSAT questions until you’re absolutely sick of them. There is nothing–NOTHING–that will help your prospects as much as getting just one additional point on the LSAT.

LSAT bubbles

You should do everything in your power–even consider delaying law school by a year or two–to get as high of a LSAT score as possible. When I applied, I took the LSAT three times, and even re-took my 170 score. (I explained my reasons for retaking a 98th percentile score in Get the Highest LSAT Score Possible) You should not hesitate to spend money on practice tests, classes, or tutors because they will provide you with the absolute best return on investment.  Nothing else, not even in this blog post, comes close to having the impact of a higher LSAT score.

GRADES

Obviously if you’re still in college try to do as best you can in your classes. Even if your overall GPA is weak, having a positive trend towards the end of college will help you. Also remember that your LSDAS GPA (which is the only GPA number law schools care about) only includes work done before you complete undergrad. So if you haven’t graduated, consider taking additional courses at community college (or elsewhere) because they will count towards your LSDAS GPA.  It may be worthwhile to do this while delaying college graduation.

One thing I want to make sure to point out is to NOT take a few years off to go to graduate school in the hopes that having a high GPA there will “fix” your undergraduate record. I really wish people would stop repeating this terrible terrible advice. If you have a couple years, take that time to take as many LSAT practice tests as possible. As a side note, I have always battled bad grades. I previously overcome my GPA problems and landed a job with IBM Consulting during my senior year in college.

Related: What GPA Do You Need For Law School?

One of my friends tried to mitigate his low college grades (sub 3.0) by going off and getting a masters degree from an Ivy-League school. Unfortunately, this was a waste of time and money.  He ended up spending two years in the masters program instead of trying to raise his LSAT score (high 150s). In the end, he couldn’t get into any tier 1 law schools.

CAST A WIDE NET

You must absolutely, positively, cast a wide net and apply to at a minimum of 10-15 schools. Think of law school applications the way you think about placing chips at a roulette table. The goal here is to get lucky, and the more bets you place, the better the odds you have of winning big.

Ignore the fact that your odds at any specific top law school will be low–remember you are trying to maximize the chances that you’ll get into at least one school. Even if you believe your GPA is too low for a particular school, you may be wrong. I’ve seen a lot of people with GPAs under a school’s “minimum” get admitted. (My post on Casting a Wide Net cites to specific examples of successful candidates.) If you’re a splitter, you really can’t apply to too many schools.

SPLITTER FRIENDLY SCHOOLS 

Having said that, there are certain T14 schools that just love splitters. Northwestern Law is by far the school that is most accepting of low GPA/high LSAT applicants.  It’s a big reason why I applied early decision there.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s an incredible program and suited me well.  But I was also aware that I also had the best chance of getting in there. For additional information on what schools prefer low GPA high LSAT splitters, and a highly effective “Splitter Early Decision” strategy, check out my post on Splitter Friendly Schools.

Bonus: Sign up for your free copy of 30 Tips for Law School Applicants with Bad College Grades.

PERSONAL STATEMENT

After your LSAT and grades, your personal statement is the next most important aspect of your application. An otherwise strong applicant can get away with an ordinary crappy topic like “Why I want to be a lawyer” because they already have strong grades and LSAT scores. If you have a low GPA, you don’t have the luxury of writing a bland or bad personal statement. (I provide examples of what subjects to stay away from in my post Topics to Avoid in Your Personal Statement.)  As a low GPA candidate, your application already starts off with a big glaring weakness so you have to shine in other aspects of your application.

ESSAYS AND ADDENDA

If your school offers you the option of writing additional essays–such as a diversity statement or Why X law school–you absolutely should write them. It’s not entirely clear how much these essays help. But as discussed earlier on in this post, you must try everything.  And if you don’t write the optional essays, admissions officers may infer that you were being lazy or didn’t care enough about their school.  I explain this in greater detail in my post Optional Essay and Addenda Strategies. As for me, I wrote every single optional essay I had the opportunity to submit.  It created a lot more work, which is why you must get started on your applications as early as possible.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Regardless of what you’ve heard, recommendations aren’t as important as the other components of your application.  Admissions committees know that most recommendations are fluffy–everyone says nice things. And besides, for most people with weak college grades, it’s kind of hard to get a good recommendation because they presumably didn’t have any strong relationships with their professors. The only thing I would say in regards to recommendations is that if you do have some control over what the recommender is going to write, ask them to praise your discipline and capacity for hard academic work.  The biggest strike against you as a splitter is that you’re smart and lazy.  Recommenders are best positioned to explain why you’re actually disciplined and hard working.

If one of your recommenders lets you write your own recommendation (one of mine did) absolutely take advantage of the opportunity.  Write the recommendation in a way that plugs up your weaknesses.  You don’t have to include effusive praise–mine certainly didn’t–but you do have to include information that shows that you’re hardworking and disciplined.  And of course make sure the stuff in the recommendation is true–otherwise your recommender may feel weird about signing of his/her name.

DEFERRALS AND WAITLISTS

The best thing that can happen to you is that you get accepted. A close second though, is not being rejected. That means any time you are deferred, held, or put on a waitlist, that is good news.  Remember, as a splitter, you are applying to the top law schools in the country with a C average. Despite what you may read on the Internet, it’s very common for splitters to not get into any top schools at all.  For example, take a look at this applicant who had a 3.0 and 176 LSAT who failed to get into any T14.

Waitlist

If you have been deferred or waitlisted, don’t despair! I provide advice on Dealing With Deferrals and Waitlists, and some ideas on Coping With Waiting to Hear Back From Law Schools as a Splitter.  Write letters of continued interest (here’s a sample) and send them to the admissions committee. Include any additional helpful information. You really don’t know what they’re thinking at this point, and they literally could admit you on any basis. (I personally believe I was admitted after Northwestern Googled my name and stumbled on my fictional love letter blogpost.)

FINAL THOUGHTS

I know there’s a ton of information in this article.  You don’t need all of it at the same time–you should come back as you are working on various parts of your application.  However, before I close I want to leave you with these three important pieces of advice:

  • Get Started Early: There’s a lot of moving parts to a law school application, so you want to be prepared. You want to give yourself as much time as possible to study for the LSAT.  You want to be done taking LSATs by December.  (According to a former Penn admissions director, taking the February exam and applying late will hurt your applications.) You want to put some time between when you did poorly in undergrad, and when you apply to law school. There’s also some evidence that getting your application in before Halloween can help at certain schools, like UChicago, Berkeley, and Penn.  Interestingly, that link also shows that applying early doesn’t seem to help very much at Northwestern, which is consistent with my personal experience. From talking with my law school friends, I learned that many of us borderline candidates languished on the waitlist and only got accepted during the summer months.
  • Send a Coherent Message:  If you’re a splitter, you will be viewed as a lazy/smart person. Your application should be designed to address your weakness–that you’re a lazy student. Don’t mix in too many messages in your application. If you have an interesting soft factor or extracurricular, try to frame it in a way that shows you are disciplined and hard working.  For example, I volunteered a lot in college but I didn’t mention my desire to help people, because that wouldn’t say anything about my capacity for hard work.  Instead I used my volunteer work to show that I was reliable, disciplined, and got tasks done.  It was a nuanced difference, but it definitely mattered. All across the Internet I’ve seen other successful splitters who worked hard to send a coherent message that counteracted their weaknesses. Your number one objective is to combat the perception that you are lazy so everything in the application should be prepared with that single goal in mind.
  • Take Conventional Advice with a Grain of Salt: There aren’t many resources out there for splitters, so much of what you’ll find will be from online forums. A lot of information you find on forums comes from well meaning people who frankly have no experience getting into law school as a long shot. And even if they do have experience, they might not know the entire universe of possible outcomes. For example, I described earlier about some splitters getting into splitter-unfriendly schools. Or, as another example, I’ve seen a lot of people say that it’s impossible to get into Northwestern Law without work experience. That’s BS. One of my closest friends from Northwestern was a splitter who went straight from college to law school. And yet I still see information out there like “If you are still in undergrad, Northwestern (the most splitter friendly t13) won’t take you.” Take all information you read with a grain of salt–even the stuff you read here. Think independently and draw conclusions on your own.

Bonus: Sign up for your free copy of 30 Tips for Law School Applicants with Bad College Grades.

And finally, remember that there are ways to overcome relatively low grades even after you go to law school. I did okay during 1L year but ended up being hired by the elite law firm Sullivan & Cromwell as a summer associate. I explain how I pulled that off in How to Succeed at Biglaw OCI Interviews. Feel free to check it out–even if it might not be relevant to you for a year or two.